PARIS — The hour is nigh. On Sunday, French voters, as well as abstainers, (expected to rise in numbers since the first-round ballot on April 23) will decide who, between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, will lead the country for the next five years. One way or another, their choice and its consequences will ripple well beyond the borders of France.

The debate between the remaining two candidates for the French presidency is usually the culmination of a months-long campaign and the occasion for memorable — and traditionally courteous — verbal jousting. But there was none of that on Wednesday night. Very much like the several weeks of campaign that preceded it, the debate focused more on the pretenders’ personae than on their proposals for the country. And the unprecedented level of verbal violence shocked observers not only in France, but around the world.

For The New York Times, Wednesday’s debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen "was more like an angry American-style television shoutfest than the reasoned discussion of issues the French have become accustomed to. It was a study in violent verbal combat: The two talked angrily over each other, cut each other off, shook fists and pointed fingers, leaving the moderators bewildered and helpless."

In Portugal, Público compared Wednesday's debate with a "boxing match in which the moderators served as the pads to soften the blows, but couldn't play their role as referees." Italian daily La Repubblica made a similar analogy. Switzerland’s Le Temps summed it up best when it described the debate as "the most violent in the history of the Fifth Republic," while the confrontation was front-page news across the globe.

Caijing magazine, China

Since surviving the first round of voting among 11 contenders, both candidates have been eager to point out that Sunday’s face-off will provide French voters with a clear choice between two very different projects for the country, and, indeed, for Europe as a whole. Not unlike the Clinton vs. Trump confrontation last year, observers around the globe have pointed out that this electoral battle between Macron and Le Pen is one between two political, economical, social and perhaps even civilizational models that are polar opposites of one another, and between two candidates who bear little, if any, similarities to one another.

Still, the favored Macron knows his biggest risk is that lukewarm supporters might not show up on Sunday. Luxemburg-based news website L'essentiel drew comparisons between the spectre of a low turnout and the mindsets that led to Brexit and the election of Trump.

["Brexit? It will never happen! I'm not going to vote! / President Trump? Impossible! So no need to vote!]

Focusing on Macron, a former investment banker at Rothschild, Der Spiegel asked the question: "Once a banker, always a banker?" The German weekly magazine drew parallels between Macron, seen by his critics as a "stooge of the banking sector," and Hillary Clinton, whose failure, wrote Stefan Kaiser and Stefan Simons, was also due to a similar public perception.

"If there is anything that can prevent the election of the political shooting star to the French presidency, it seems to be Macron's image as the candidate of the financial elite," they wrote. The magazine recounted his quick rise to power from entering Rothschild in 2008 to becoming the "Mozart of finance" by advising Nestlé on its $12 billion acquisition of Pfizer’s baby food unit in 2012, and from becoming François Hollande’s deputy secretary-general at the Elysée Palace after his election in 2012 to being named economy minister two years later. Still, the magazine concluded Macron’s program is resolutely pro-business, but he is "no finance capital servant by a long shot."

Meanwhile, in British magazine The Spectator, Scottish commentator Douglas Murray tried to look beyond Marine Le Pen’s label and asked the question, "Is Marine Le Pen really far-right?" Lamenting the fact that "such overuse of the term has eroded the boundaries it created," Murray concluded that "it is largely agreed that Marine Le Pen is ‘far-right’ because her father is Jean-Marie Le Pen; that his is the tradition she comes from; that her party’s roots remain ugly and that she is pretending to be more moderate than she is to get into political office. It will help keep her from the presidency this time." But, he warned, "Europe’s cordon sanitaire is straining and at some point may well break."

For Israel’s Haaretz, "If Marine Le Pen is elected, no cultured person will have enough tears to mourn France. It won’t be just another political victory, but the crowning as president of the heir to the ugliest, most dangerous strain in French history," columnist Sefy Hendler wrote. "True, few people think that if Macron wins on Sunday, it will be ‘the best of times’ for France; many view him as the lesser evil, and nothing more. But anyone with eyes in his head understands that if Le Pen pulls out a surprise win, it will usher in ‘the worst of times’ for France, Europe and anyone who loves culture and freedom. Because despite everything, to quote Dickens again, his victory would bring ‘the spring of hope,’ while hers would usher in ‘the winter of despair.’"

Haaretz's front page

Diogo Bercito of Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo highlighted the role of national identity in the election: "The French are heading to the polls this Sunday in the same state as those who are heading for the psychologist’s couch: in an identity crisis. In times of globalization and migration, their choice for their next president is linked to the meaning of their nationality." Macron’s France, he wrote, "has euros in its pockets, [...] is multicultural and aligned with the U.S." while Le Pen wants "a return of the franc, [...] woos native French people and Russia."

Looking for the election's consequences beyond France, Germany’s former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer wrote that Macron must win to avoid "Europe’s self-destruction." But beyond a Macron victory on Sunday, he warned that Europe needs him to succeed in power and said that Germany must help him achieve this much needed success to truly defeat the anti-EU side. "He cannot, for Europe’s well-understood self-interest, fail," Fischer wrote in a column for the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. Seeing economic growth as crucial to Macron’s success, Fischer called on Germany after the general election in September to "bite the bullet" about government debt, competitiveness and to reach a new consensus with southern Europe. "Or do you want to leave the field to the nationalists and destroyers of the EU?" Fischer asked rhetorically.

Former Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz chose a slightly stronger image to depict the lack of enthusiasm for the Macron/Marine alliterative alternative:

[Marine ... Macron ... What a sh*t (merde) country]

In China, Global Times noted that Le Pen’s defeat won’t mean she "has worked tirelessly for nothing. Her political career could suffer some frustrations, but the far-right political force has grown during her presidential campaign. If she turns into the "black swan" and defeats Macron, for many Europeans, her victory will toll the bell of the European Union."

Writing in Spanish daily El País, Paris correspondent Marc Bassets described a country with "deep fractures" and divided between "cities and rural areas, interior and coastline, east and west, low and high education level, happy and unhappy." "The opposition is no longer between left and right," he writes, "but between pro-EU and sovereignists, liberals and protectionists, reformists and populists."

"Fractured" was also the headline on a comprehensive study, published in The Economist, that analyzed the country’s new geography and the emergence of what French sociologist Christophe Guilluy called in a famous book Peripheral France, "a world where [Marine Le Pen’s] FN is on the rise," the magazine wrote. "History shows that such moments of upheaval can produce startling and creative forces for renewal. But they can also presage a slide into darkness. In Mr Macron’s cities, and Ms Le Pen’s urban outskirts and rural areas, France is poised to go either way. The choice it makes could scarcely matter more."


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